Urge Overkill: The Culture Brats Interview

If ever a band seemed destined for stardom in the early '90s, it was Urge Overkill. Hailing from Chicago, they had killer riffs, ironic attitude, and adulation of critics and fans alike. They had opened for Nirvana on the Nevermind tour and Pearl Jam on the Vs. tour. Saturation had been a critical and commercial hit (by this author's estimation, it was the 18th greatest album of all time) and "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" had been featured in the landmark cultural touchstone Pulp Fiction.

Yet after releasing Exit The Dragon, the band dissolved, victims of its own success. Blessedly, they have re-emerged in recent years, playing shows and even releasing an excellent album, Rock & Roll Submarine, in 2011. Lucky fans in Orlando and Atlanta get the pleasure of seeing them with another band-of-the-moment, Phoenix, this week. In anticipation of this, I caught up with guitarist/vocalist Eddie "King" Roeser to talk about the shows, their music, and how Urge fits into the musical landscape of today.

You're scheduled to appear with Phoenix on May 8 in Orlando and May 9 in Atlanta. What sparked that collaboration?
Phoenix invited us to join them for those shows. Apparently they've been fans of Urge for a long time and consider us an influence. So does Daft Punk, who is part of that whole scene with them in France. Three or four of the guys came to one of our recent shows and they reached out to us to have us play with them, which is a righteous thing to do.

You're not actively touring right now, but you are supporting your latest album, Rock & Roll Submarine. Prior to that it had been sixteen years since your last album, Exit The Dragon. What got Urge back into the studio?
We wanted to see if we were still capable of doing anything "Urge-worthy" and differentiated from our solo work. I'd been trying to have a career after Urge doing solo stuff. I had some music I didn't even bother releasing. I was signed to Matador at the time, but they called me up and said they didn't even know how to promote it, which was really hard. The fact is Nash and I both had a half-hearted approach to solo projects. Ultimately, the band chemistry... it's just better. When you're playing with a band, if you have that chemistry you get better musical results.

Someone hanging with Nash suggested an Urge show. We had a lot of support in Chicago to make that happen. We were hesitant; people don't understand how intense the creative differences were, or how insane and acrimonious it could be. When we broke up, I was really down. It was a horrible experience. With what happens with success... well you can fill in the blanks.

We probably should have taken some time off at the time instead of breaking up. But we did end up taking a break, I guess, and when we got back together it ended up being a lot of fun. We slowly started playing more shows. We were still re-establishing ourselves. We needed to make sure we were happy with what we were putting out there.

Are you working on a follow-up?
We're almost done with a new album. We've been playing as a band with the current lineup since 2003, and we've got a lot of material. It's been a long process, though. You don't want to just slap your name on something to get it out there. But it's hard to do without a deadline.

Rock & Roll Submarine is very much an Urge Overkill record, cut from much the same cloth as Saturation and The Supersonic Storybook. As an artist do you see your recent work as a progression of your sound? A reclamation? Something else?
Our natural impulses are more traditionalist pop, a two-guitar kind of thing. We came of age during an art rock era, but the voice we're into is more classic rock songwriting. We're not trying to break any rules; it's our take on what a great classic rock sound is supposed to be. It's one of the things I like about Phoenix. They aren't really doing something new, but they are combining things in a new way, with bleak lyrics and dramatic moments in changes. I wish I was more experimental sometimes, but that's what I like. It's a weird sorcery coming up with it.

When Rock & Roll Submarine came out, I was surprised when people said it was a continuation. It sounded distinctively Urge to people who cared, which is a great complement. I guess that was the plan. We weren't attempting to recreate. We were just doing what we thought sounded good and appropriate. And we wanted to make music you could play live. All that techy stuff... I have absolutely no time for it.

The music industry has changed a lot since 1995, but that sounds very old school.
Things have changed a lot, and now you have the option to do endless stuff on tracks. I think self-imposed limits are good in music. We took versions of the music as it was coming together, while it was still fresh and we were excited about it. It's really an old style of making music; we didn't do a ton of takes. We wanted it to sound right in demo form.

It didn't completely work; it still took a long time to finish. But it's about having time to understand what you liked and what you didn't. And we're interested in doing a record as a document instead of singles. We want cohesion, something that stands as a listening experience.

Anybody old school like us is still getting used to music being basically free. You used to make money back then because people had to buy your record to hear it. You'd think if you were all over streaming services you'd make some money, but you can't count on that.

I also think it's still good to have music you can hold onto. The vinyl of our album is doing well--better than expected--and I'm happy with that. If you grew up with LPs... the experience now is just not the same as getting that record.

The 20th anniversary of the classic No Alternative compilation was recently celebrated, which featured your incredible song, "Take A Walk." How have you seen the music industry change since those days for artists such as yourself?
I was fortunate to have grown up at a time when music was a precious, secret thing. You had to work hard to find good music. There's about a thousand times more music now than there was in 1990. The value of music seems more disposable now than it was then. There's no way to keep abreast of everything. I assume there are things out there that are great you will never know about. You still have to work hard and research to find good music not because there is so little but because there is so much.

Back then you had to get your ass to a studio with someone who knew what they were doing. We were fortunate to have met Steve Albini at Northwestern. I was too immature to make a record. He had the drive to figure how to get a record made, how to get it distributed. The music industry was impenetrable back then, but he said, "I'm going to do this." Steve needed experience and bands to learn his craft. We were guinea pigs for him, although we didn't realize it at the time. Jesus Urge Superstar was the first thing recorded in his house. But Nash and I were just jesters at the time; we didn't think we'd go anywhere.

A lot of guys are functional people who need to be recognized. Not us. We were lucky to be pulled along by Steve and Cory at Touch and Go, guys like them that helped get lazy twenty-one year olds to make a great record. I come from a small town in Minnesota with a Lake Wobegon-like culture. You don't want to be rising above your status. So we made it into a joke and pretended to be rock stars. Bands like us, I don't even know how some of them even make it to their own shows. But because of that we were willing to take the risks. It's an unlikely story.

By 1995, you were at the peak of your success. But you couldn't sustain it.
We got into the machine. That can really be something. Some of that is what led to our demise as a band. It gets a lot harder than just putting together a show. I admire bands who can do it and stick together as a group. Phoenix is like that; they seem very democratic, very "all for one and one for all." We wanted to be like that. We wanted to be like the Monkees, all living in the same house, having fun all the time.

But once we got a little success with Saturation, the stakes were raised, and that really fucked us up. We had a falling out over whether to pursue a more polished sound or not. I remember the drummer from Smashing Pumpkins, Jimmy Chamberlin, listening to our follow-up to Saturation and saying, "You guys sound like fucking idiots." And we didn't want Blackie [Onassis] to die from heroin. We didn't end up pushing the record. The team dynamic wasn't working anymore, we weren't having fun. I knew it was going to end badly; I'm happy with the decision [to leave].

Well we here at Culture Brats are huge fans, and are thrilled you're back together and making music.
A lot of things had to go right for our music to speak louder than our unprofessionalism. That's a victory. Lots of people who are serious about music hold our records as important, and that means a lot to us. And we're gonna keep on going. We're still trying to have dreams of greatness.

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